I kept the queen waiting.
Thunderstorms had delayed my flight. By the time the plane landed, Cook Islands Queen Manarangi Tutai had been waiting at the airport for three hours.
Despite the imposition, she smiled regally, wished me "Kia orana" — "May you live long" — and draped a fragrant necklace of gardenias around my shoulders. I stumbled through an apology. I had planned to stay at her bed-and-breakfast inn on the remote South Pacific island of Aitutaki during my November trip, but I didn't expect her to pick me up, much less grab my luggage, as she was now doing, and drive me to the B&B herself.
"Don't worry. We're on island time," she said cheerily. Clearly, I had left L.A. behind. Gridlocked freeways, scowling faces and diesel-scented air faded as Queen Tutai hoisted my bag into the back of her well-worn utility truck. In the Cook Islands, I soon learned, there is no traffic, people smile at one another and the air is scented with plumeria. Plus, for $53 a night, any guest can receive a royal welcome.
The 15 atolls and islands that make up the Cooks — named for 18th century explorer Capt. James Cook — are strung across 850,000 square miles of ocean midway between South America and Australia. It's a part of the world that is sometimes subject to violent tropical storms and cyclones during the rainy season, November to March. Earlier this year, in a little more than a month, five major cyclones swirled through the islands, a record. But "we took precautions and were prepared," the queen said. No one was killed or injured, and despite the pummeling the islands took, the welcome sign is out once again. During balmier periods, the Cooks — which are part of Polynesia — are known for their sparkling lagoons, swaying palm trees, powdery white beaches and pleasant, gracious people.
Unlike their famous neighbor French Polynesia, about 600 miles east, the Cooks have no McDonald's restaurants and no large hotel developments. They differ from Tahiti in another way too: Everyone speaks English.
Though easily accessible, the islands are relatively undiscovered. Last year, 83,000 people visited — about the same number that arrived in Hawaii in a 12-hour period. That's all the better for travelers seeking a fantasy island experience. It's easy to find an isolated beach to call your own or to stake claim to a private island.
Most U.S. travelers arrive the way I did, on an 8 1/2 -hour Air New Zealand flight that originates in Los Angeles, stops for an hour in Tahiti and continues 90 more minutes to Rarotonga, site of the Cook Islands airport and Avarua, the capital.
Although some visitors see only the beaches and craggy mountains of Rarotonga, about 20% visit the slower-paced Outer Islands, particularly Aitutaki, which is known for its lagoon. Adventure and travel guides have called it one of the most beautiful in the world.
It's easy to understand why. It's the blue lagoon that resides in your daydreams, the one that stalks you on a dreary afternoon when the boss is glaring at you, the water heater has sprung a leak and you can't stand the thought of another long commute.
I saw it first from the air, after a 40-minute flight from Rarotonga. It was striking, a turquoise triangle outlined by waves crashing against a barrier reef. Outside the triangle, the water was cobalt blue and looked deep; inside, it was so shallow and clear that the sandy bottom was visible in some places. Sheltered inside the lagoon was the lush, green island of Aitutaki and more than a dozen of the sandy islets called motu.
Cruising the lagoon The next morning, I explored the lagoon more closely from the cabin of a 24-foot cruiser. Queen Tutai and her husband, British expat Des Clarke, let me ride along as they took a Danish family to the queen's beach lodge at a semiprivate island in the lagoon. (My cottage at Gina's Garden Lodge — she named her two inns for her daughter Georgina — cost $53 a night; the Danes paid about $170 a night at Gina's Beach Lodge, including transportation and rustic accommodations.)
As we skimmed across the water, Clarke joked about the boat. "It's the queen's Navy," he said, "along with a 16-foot fishing boat."
Queen Tutai's title is primarily ceremonial and cultural. She is a member of the Aitutaki House of Ariki, Maori chiefs who once ruled the islands.
The Cooks are now a self-governing, parliamentary democracy; they receive some assistance from New Zealand, which handles defense. The House of Ariki provides advice and consultation.
The Ariki may not have governmental authority, but they are influential. Queen Tutai, 58, takes advantage of this whenever possible.
One of her favorite crusades is preserving the environment, a difficult task in the face of an expanding tourism industry.
"Tourism offers economic liberation," she said. "But there are drawbacks. Our forefathers had no money, but they had the land and the sea. What part of our environment are we willing to give up to make money? We must preserve the dream that others travel across the world to see."
Many islanders agree. They don't want their Shangri-La to become another Waikiki. Regulations specify that buildings may not exceed the height of the tallest palm tree; they also prohibit nonislanders from owning land. Tourist facilities are mostly small and owner-operated. There are no chain hotels.
Islanders fiercely guard their social and religious beliefs. Sunday, they say, is God's day, a time to attend church, not a day for shopping, touring or traveling. When Air Rarotonga tried to begin Sunday flights into Aitutaki from Rarotonga in the mid-'90s, there was a mini-revolt, Queen Tutai said.
"The pastors and their congregations took bulldozers and cars and motorbikes and parked them all over the runway on the morning the first flight was due," she said. "The message got through: The plane cannot land."
Cook Islands' blue laws surprise American tourists. They find that stores are closed and tours aren't available. Restaurants and mini-marts are open. I heard a few visitors grumble about "losing a day," but it seemed silly to gripe about having to spend a day swimming in a lagoon or napping on the beach.
Besides, the churches are the best show in town on a Sunday morning. I managed to take in three on the island of Rarotonga: the Roman Catholic cathedral, where the bishop wore a plumeria ei — Hawaiians would call it a lei — around his neck, and two Cook Islands Christian Churches, the main denomination here. The coral block buildings are impressive; congregants dress in their Sunday best; and the singing is a waterfall of sound rising and falling with the inspired harmonies of male and female worshipers.
The Rev. John Williams of the London Missionary Society started it all when he landed on Aitutaki in 1821, bringing Tahitian converts with him. They were so successful in spreading the message that Williams moved on, only to be killed and eaten when he ventured west to Vanuatu.
Cook Islanders' strict religious views don't extend to dancing. One of the most popular activities for visitors is Island Night, an erotic, exuberant celebration of Polynesian music, dance and food. The buffet dinner and show rotates during the week from resort to resort. The routines are steamy. The male dancers are fast and aggressive; the females graceful and suggestive. The food is similar to that served on other Polynesian islands: fish, taro, suckling pig.
The islanders I met were warm and welcoming. Most people own a home and a small plot of land where they plant crops and raise pigs, chickens and a goat or two. "But opportunities are limited," said Chris Wong, director of the state tourism corporation. "And many young people leave after high school."
The declining population has become the islands' most serious problem. The nation had about 21,000 residents in 1971; now it has only about 14,000. More Cook Islanders live in Australia and New Zealand than in their homeland. Jobs in the travel industry go begging, and workers must be recruited from other countries. "People are afraid they'll become a minority in their own land," Queen Tutai said.
It's hard for a visitor to imagine that anyone would want to leave. I rented cars on both islands and drove the two-lane roads that encircle them. I felt as though I had pole-vaulted into a different dimension and was seeing Tahiti 30 years ago.
Rarotonga, with about 25 miles of paved highway, is the largest island in the chain. It has about 8,000 residents and is the main tourist destination. It also has the low-key capital, Avarua, where two waterfront restaurants were heavily damaged in the first cyclone, which hit Feb. 6. The town is only four blocks long, with a few dozen shops and stores, five churches, three banks and a smattering of businesses. Visitors can buy fresh fruits and vegetables at the outdoor market or get a chilled drinking coconut or a hand-strung vanda orchid ei.
The drive around Rarotonga takes about an hour — I had to keep reminding myself to stay on the left, British-style — and took me along the coast, where I saw Rarotonga's lagoon. It's not as widely known as the one in Aitutaki, but the water is turquoise and the beaches are inviting. When I heard about the string of cyclones, I wondered how it had fared, so I called hotelier Greg Stanaway.
"I look out at the lagoon now, and the sand is sparkling white," he said. "Cyclones can be devastating, but they also bring renewal. The storms flushed out old sand and brought in new." Stanaway's Pacific Resorts has hotels in Rarotonga and Aitutaki.
Mountains and jungle A volcanic island, Rarotonga has saw-tooth peaks and razorback ridges in its center, and during my visit I wanted to get close enough to look at the dense jungle growth that covered them. Finally I found a road that wound inland to Wigmore's Waterfall, a small cascade that drops down off a mountain into a swimming hole. Within three minutes of leaving the car, I had five mosquito bites. I jumped back inside and headed for the coast, where the noxious pests don't venture.
A few days later, I rented a car again, this time to circle Aitutaki — a short trip, because it has only about 12 miles of paved road. I stopped in a few hotels and was surprised at the range of prices. Queen Tutai's Garden Lodge is a good buy, as are a few other accommodations. But I found many pricey units. The luxury beachfront bungalows at Pacific Resort Aitutaki have tariffs to match: $518 to $900 a night, on par with expensive over-the-water bungalows in French Polynesia.
Back on the road, I passed through several small, sleepy villages. I saw pedestrians and a few motorbikes, but for the most part, I shared the highway with piglets, coconut crabs and chickens. It's probably not the place to go if you're looking for excitement.
But the scenery was wonderful. I stopped near the water and got out of the car. On the horizon, lagoon and sky met seamlessly, an aquamarine reflection that stretched into infinity, broken only by an occasional outrigger canoe in the distance. The water was so calm and transparent that I could see schools of translucent fish.
I pulled myself away and got back in the car. As I drove, I kept catching sight of the lagoon. It winked at me from behind palm trees and called to me as I skirted its edge.
"Cash in your ticket home," it said to me. "Cash in your ticket home."
To see a Cook Islands video and more photos, go to latimes.com/cookislands. *
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
South Pacific lure
From LAX, direct service (stop, no change of plane) to Rarotonga is available on Air New Zealand, and connecting service (change of plane) is available on Air New Zealand, Air Tahiti Nui, Air Pacific and Qantas. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $1,398, dropping to $1,158 from April 26 to June 17.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international calling code), 682 (country code for the Cook Islands) and the local number.
The Cook Islands are in the same time zone as Hawaii, three hours behind California.
WHERE TO STAY:
Pacific Resort Rarotonga, P.O. Box 790, Rarotonga; 20-427, http://www.pacificresort.com . Nice gardens and attractive rooms at this 64-room resort on pretty Muri Beach. Restaurant, bar, pool, activities center. Doubles start at $248 a night, including breakfast and transfers.
Club Raro, P.O. Box 483, Rarotonga; 22-415, http://www.clubraro.co.ck . Small rooms, but the scenic oceanfront motel is within walking distance of Avarua, the capital. Pool. Doubles $106 a night, including breakfast.
Are Tamanu, P.O. 59, Aitutaki; 31-810, http://www.aretamanu.com . Picturesque location at the edge of Aitutaki's lagoon. Twelve cottages with kitchenettes. Doubles $300 a night, including breakfast.
Samade on the Beach, P.O. Box 75, Aitutaki; 31-526, http://www.samadebeach.com . Small, new, air-conditioned bungalows are clean and efficient. Doubles from $178 a night, including breakfast and airport transfers.
Gina's Garden Lodge, P.O. Box 10, Aitutaki; 31-058, http://www.ginasaitutaki.com . Roomy bungalows with kitchenettes. Pool. Doubles $70 a night. Beach Lodge on semiprivate isle is $170. Transfers included.
WHERE TO EAT:
Flame Tree, Muri Beach, Rarotonga; 25-123. Flavorful, nicely prepared Indonesian specialties and curries. Entrees from $15.
Cafe Tupuna, Tautu Village, Aitutaki; 31-678. Open-air dining. Seafood, chicken, taro, other local dishes beautifully presented. Entrees from $17.50.
TO LEARN MORE:
Cook Islands Tourism Corp., P.O. Box 14, Rarotonga, Cook Islands; 29-435 or, in the U.S., (866) 280-1739, http://www.cook-islands.com .
— Rosemary McClure